This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.
By Heidi Hart
In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate.
Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.
Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv] the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).
Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists.
Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019).
Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).
The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth.
So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.”
This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.
[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160.
[ii] Ibid. 175.
[iii] Ibid. 173.
[iv] Mindell, Arnold. (1995). Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Lao Tse Press. 69-70.
[v] Thunberg, Greta and Malena Ernman, Svante Thunberg, Beate Ernman. (2020). Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Penguin.
[vi] Klein, Naomi. (2020). “On Fire.” All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Penguin Random House. p. 42.
[viii] Higgs, Kerryn. (2016). Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. MIT Press.